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July 10, 2020

Left for Dead, R Surges Again

Alex Woodie

Don’t look now, but R, which some had written off as a language in terminal decline in lieu of Python’s immense and growing popularity, appears to be staging a furious comeback the likes of which IT has rarely seen.

According to the TIOBE Index, which tracks the popularity of programming languages (as expressed in Web searches), R has risen an unprecedented 12 spots, up from number 20 in the summer of 2019 to number 8 on its list today.

That’s a huge move, particularly in light of the continued domination of Python as the language of choice for data science. A recent report on data science tools by Anaconda found that 75% of data scientists and analyst report using Python “always” or “frequently,” which was by far the most popular language. Only 6% of users reported not using Python, which is quite remarkable when you think about it.

To its credit, R was number two in Anaconda’s ranking, but it wasn’t really close, as only 27% of users reported using R “always” or “frequently.” It’s clear that Python continues to be the preferred language for data science, and not by a small margin.

But in light of the surge in usage detected by TIOBE, Python’s unparalleled success doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the road for R.

R certainly didn’t look good a year ago. In the August 2019 Datanami story “Is Python Strangling R to Death?”, we reported how R had fallen precipitously from the number 8 slot on the list of TIOBE’s most popular languages in January 2018 to number 20 in August 2019. Meanwhile, Python usage continued to increase (although it was not enough to displace perennial heavyweights C and Java on the list).

The TIOBE Index for R (image courtesy TIOBE Index)

“Python’s continuous rise in popularity comes at the expense of the decline of popularity of other programming languages,” the folks behind the TIOBE Index wrote in July 2019. “One of these programming languages is R…”

My, what a difference a year makes.

Thanks to a 1.57% surge in the number of searches for R performed on popular search engines (the main driver of TIOBE’s index), R reclaimed the number 8 spot on the July 2020 TIOBE Index.

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